Part V: This essay is the fifth in our week-long series on geopolitics by Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, and part four here
The problems of our own age are never as novel as they seem. It is fashionable, in every era, to argue we live in a totally new world that requires totally original solutions. But the fundamental issue the democratic world faces today — China’s challenge for primacy in Eurasia and beyond — is a new twist on an old problem.
In some ways, there are no precedents for Beijing’s gambit. Xi Jinping’s China is a Leninist state that professes adherence to socialism but practises a radically unequal, state-driven capitalism. It combines wealth and technological sophistication with intense nationalism and autocratic insecurity. It is pursuing its goals through old-school methods such as military pressure and new-age approaches such as the dissemination of digital authoritarianism. ‘China,’ the Asia expert Abraham Denmark writes, ‘is emerging as a kind of world power never seen before.’
Its ambitions, however, are all too recognisable. The Chinese Communist Party is seeking a sphere of influence throughout the East Asian rimland and the Western Pacific. It is simultaneously building an informal empire deep into Eurasia. These projects are two sides of the same coin: achieving primacy on one flank will free up resources to secure the other.
America, Defense Department official Andrew Marshall wrote in 2002, must prepare for a long struggle with China ‘for influence and position within the Eurasian continent and the Pacific Rimland.’ That competition is raging, as China seeks mastery on land as well as an empire of the seas. The great geopolitical game over Eurasia is on again. Fortunately, patterns from previous rounds of that struggle can help us make sense of this one, too.
A toxic mix
One insight is that economic dynamism, political illiberalism, and geopolitical resentment are a toxic mix. Imperial Germany was dangerous, writes the British historian Paul Kennedy, because it ‘combined the modern, industrialised strength of the western democracies with the autocratic (one is tempted to say irresponsible) decision-making features of the eastern monarchies.’ That’s a fair description of China today.
Since the inauguration of capitalist reforms in 1978, China has experienced a world-beating economic ascent that has seen its GDP rise more than forty-fold and its factories become the workshop of the world. After the Cold War, the United States wagered that this economic modernisation, aided by foreign trade and technology, would lead to diplomatic moderation and political liberalisation: China would be integrated into, and tamed by, the world order that facilitated its rise.
Yet economic engagement mostly allowed a tenacious CCP to buy off its critics, while stoking an angry nationalism as a fount of domestic legitimacy. China thus became, as the Dutch-American political scientist Nicholas Spykman worried, ‘modern, vitalised, and militarised.’ And it has reverted, under Xi, to a more personalised, ideological form of tyranny, with all the potential for geopolitical irresponsibility that implies.
Indeed, the CCP is driven by an intense desire to alter, even overturn, the existing order. China is a risen power that wants its say in shaping international rules. It is a former Eurasian empire whose leadership views a China-centric world as the historic norm. It is also a starkly revisionist power that seeks to undo the perceived wrongs of a ‘century of humiliation’ when China was torn apart by internal strife and external predation. Not least, it is a neo-totalitarian state whose rulers chafe at the expectations of a liberal international order. China may have been a US ally in the later Cold War, but today it is mounting a revolutionary challenge to the American-dominated system.
That project reflects a second enduring pattern — the search for hybrid hegemony. The great aspiration of Eurasian challengers has always been combing territorial primacy with maritime expansion. China is trying to achieve both goals at once.
Beijing clearly aims for dominance in East Asia and the Western Pacific, which constitute the world’s most economically vibrant region. Xi has called this ‘Asia for Asians’ – a region free of American influence will be a region susceptible to Chinese control.
To that end, China is asserting sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea, much of the East China Sea, and the critical island, Taiwan, between them. It is seeking to pull the region’s economies into its orbit, while feverishly developing the military tools to enforce compliance with its demands. The goal appears to be breaking the chain of US alliances and security partnerships along the First Island Chain; China is willing to share the Pacific, a Chinese admiral once told his U.S. counterpart, as long as the dividing line is drawn at Hawaii. Once Beijing has consolidated control of its maritime approaches, it will be in position to project influence around the world.
China is simultaneously exploiting the fact that its territory juts deep into Eurasia to seek a form of continental preponderance. The symbol of this project is Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), meant to create a more economically and technologically integrated Eurasia with Beijing at its centre.
Infrastructure projects in Pakistan and Sri Lanka can, for instance, help China encircle India and break through to the Indian Ocean. The BRI can weave webs of economic, political, and — eventually — military influence enmeshing countries from Southeast Asia to Central Asia and well beyond. In the near-term, the BRI may improve China’s access to resources needed for its own development, whether fossil fuels for industries or digitised data for AI algorithms. In the longer-term, if China can draw countries across Eurasia into its orbit, it can create a secure base from which to seek maritime dominance and global primacy.
As in the past, geopolitical nightmares tend to be humanitarian nightmares. It is estimated Xi has thrown between one and two million Uighurs into concentration camps, while using a mix of digital and physical repression to turn their home region, Xinjiang, in the country’s northwest, into a horrifying preview of a Chinese-led world. Among his reasons is that Xinjiang sits along the path to Central Asia and other Eurasian hotspots, so instability, let alone ‘subversion,’ there is intolerable.
An iron fist in a velvet glove
Here a third pattern becomes relevant: The methods of Eurasian consolidation change, but the stakes do not. Germany and Japan went on rampages of violent conquest. The Soviets relied on military intimidation, subversion, and proxy forces. China wields forms of power more diverse than Moscow did, so its Eurasian challenge blends methods old and new.
Beijing is putting ships to sea faster than any country in decades; its strategists muse about ‘short sharp wars’ to vanquish Taiwan and bring Japan to heel. The People’s Liberation Army’s budget has grown nearly twelve-fold since 1990; China is engaged in a nuclear build-up with Cold War echoes; it has built or is seeking military facilities in countries such as Djibouti, Tajikistan, and Cambodia. Using military muscle to coerce one’s rivals looks very much like Eurasian challenges we have seen before.
Yet China possesses many tools of influence. The BRI weaponises lending and technology for geopolitical ends. China is working to build digital spheres of influence, as countries adopt its 5G technology and Beijing buys up the physical infrastructure of the Internet. Xi’s government can export tools of digital repression to envious autocrats across the globe; it can use its market power, as the largest trade partner for almost 130 countries, to manipulate their foreign policy choices. China is also racing to dominate AI, quantum computing, and other key technologies, in part so it can wield powerful leverage against those who resist its will.
Ascendant Chinese economic influence could anaesthetise states to the loss of their political sovereignty, or deprive them of freedom of action when Beijing resorts to cruder aggression. What makes the Chinese challenge so vexing is that Beijing combines an alarming accumulation of military power with subtler methods of control.
Yet if certain modalities are new, the stakes are not. A China that became preeminent within the Western Pacific and Western Eurasia would have a commanding global position. It could harness the resources of these regions to its own growth, while locking competitors out of vital markets. It could coerce its foes on a worldwide scale, and shape the international system to reflect its autocratic preferences. Even in such conditions, the United States probably still wouldn’t face the dreaded scenario of a military assault. But it would find, as US President Roosevelt warned in 1940, that a world led by a totalitarian behemoth in Eurasia would be a shabby and dangerous place.
An alliance of enemies
Which is why we’re being reminded of a fourth lesson: vast Eurasian ambitions produce expanding circles of hostility. The United States became a global superpower because it had weak neighbours and an offshore position that made it the natural friend of Eurasian states threatened by aggressive authoritarians. Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union ultimately failed to match that achievement because their expansion threatened the survival of their neighbours — and thereby created alliances between fearful enemies both near and far.
This is China’s central dilemma. Geography gives China the Eurasian reach that the Soviet Union enjoyed, as well as the usable oceanic frontage that it mostly lacked. Yet it also leaves China encircled by roughly twenty countries, most of which understand that their own security requires balancing Chinese influence. If Beijing doesn’t manoeuvre skillfully, it will end up with trouble on all sides.
China skirted this problem for a while: Its ‘hide and bide’ strategy, implemented for two decades after the Cold War, was well-crafted to avoid provoking the sort of transoceanic containment coalition that had broken the Soviet Union. Yet Beijing cast off that strategy after the 2008-09 financial crisis. Since then, its conduct — the surging military build-up, belligerence in hot-spots from the Himalayas to Hong Kong, the wolf-warrior diplomacy, among other things — has given potential rivals much to fear.
Countries in the shadow of Chinese power, such as Taiwan, Japan, and India are now building up their military capabilities and tightening relations with America. The United States, for its part, is retooling its defence, technological, and economic policies for prolonged competition. Multilateral groupings, such as AUKUS and the Quad, are springing up as trans-regional foci of resistance to Chinese coercive power. Countries from multiple continents — Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia — are sending naval vessels to patrol the South China Sea, as local powers quietly explore options for bucking Beijing.
Meanwhile, bodies such as the G7 and NATO are taking anti-China positions; informal tech coalitions are forming with the goal of keeping Beijing at bay. Most nations in Europe have now banned or limited the role of Huawei in 5G networks; over a dozen countries, from Italy to Kyrgyzstan to Malaysia, have cancelled or downsized BRI projects. Even Russia, whose close partnership with Beijing has increased fears of an authoritarian Eurasia, appears somewhat uncomfortable with the prospect of an aggressive China.
Stalin could relate to Xi’s predicament: countries in China’s neighbourhood and beyond are increasingly cooperating to check its influence. The global ambition of a Eurasian power is once again eliciting a global response.
Geography shapes but strategy decides
Does history have a favourite in this contest? The course of the twentieth century suggests it isn’t China. Every country that has made a bid for global power from its perch in Eurasia has ended up crushed by the overwhelming coalition its expansion eventually provokes.
That history is not lost on a few vocal CCP loyalists. One former diplomat, Yuan Nansheng, has warned, by way of historical analogy, that ‘having enemies on all sides’ is the path to ruin. Military analysts point out that countries that confront America and its many allies typically pay an awful price.
These commentators are right to worry. China may be economically and military formidable, but it remains vulnerable to strategic encirclement. It is, for example, highly dependent on advanced semi-conductors, but the United States is now using its global influence to deny them to Huawei — a quiet technological containment strategy. It cannot afford, any more than Moscow could, confrontations on multiple fronts. Moreover, Washington and its allies still possess a significant majority of global wealth and military power. If China provokes multilateral containment, it will have picked a fight it probably cannot win.
But that shouldn’t be cause for American complacency. Outlasting the Soviet Union required a dangerous, forty-year cold war pervaded by the threat of hot war. Other aspiring hegemons did catastrophic damage before they fell. Location doesn’t determine everything: Imperial Germany and the Axis powers came far too close to winning the wars they started for democratic comfort. And as China reaches for glory, it still has hope of rupturing the coalitions forming against it.
Brute force is one option: Beijing could use its local military advantages to invade Taiwan or thrash the Philippines, in hopes of breaking the containment barrier and shifting the balance of power in its favour. Seduction remains another possibility: China can use the allure of its market and technology, or simply woo foreign elites legally or illegally, to soften the strategic backlash.
Case in point: In December 2020, the EU signed a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with Beijing despite the incoming Biden administration’s pleas for a united economic front. China then squandered that breakthrough, with a wolf-warrior outburst that subsequently placed the agreement in jeopardy. Yet the fact remains that Beijing has an economic capacity to punish its enemies and reward the fence-sitters that neither the Soviet Union, nor Germany, nor Imperial Japan ever possessed.
The counter-China coalitions, meanwhile, have a long way to go. For all the talk about defending a democratic Taiwan, Asia lacks anything like a multilateral framework to deter aggression. The United States lacks a trade policy anywhere near sufficient to arrest Chinese economic influence in the Asia-Pacific. The perception that America is withdrawing from Southwest Asia and the Middle East is creating Eurasian openings that China can exploit. And none of the countries — not America, Japan, India, Taiwan, or any other — threatened by China’s belligerence are yet reacting with the urgency that both history and Beijing’s behaviour suggest are warranted. Balancing is happening, but in slow-motion.
The coming years will likely see a contest of ‘containment and counter-containment,’ as China’s defence minister Wei Fenghe said in early 2021 — a race between America’s bid to build a stronger counter-China coalition and Beijing’s bid to spoil it.
China will use military intimidation, economic leverage, and strategic corruption to neutralise its foes and weaken ties between vulnerable front-line states and a distant superpower. America and its friends must implement crash programmes for shoring up endangered military positions on Taiwan and elsewhere in the Western Pacific, limiting Chinese economic and technological influence in ways that preserve its rivals’ strategic autonomy, and otherwise closing ranks, on multiple fronts, against Beijing’s gambit. Their success or failure will determine whether the world’s democracies can successfully corral the Chinese challenge, as the West did to Moscow during the Cold War. If they cannot, the world’s democracies could find themselves with a problem more akin to the world wars — that of recovering once failure or inaction has put them in a very tight spot
History tells us that China’s chances aren’t great: Beijing may eventually face a choice between moderating its ambitions and provoking a focused hostility it cannot handle. Yet history also reminds us that surprises happen and democratic dominance is not assured. Geography shapes but strategy decides: that is the most relevant lesson the Eurasian century has to offer.